Kangas play a huge role in our culture. To say that they are multifunctional is an understatement. Kangas are used, worn by nearly every Tanzanian family. I grew up seeing my mother and my aunties wear Kangas. Like most people in Tanzania, I got my very first Kanga when I was born; it was wrapped around me the very first day. I also grew up in a house where every Eid celebration our father would buy each of his four daughters and our mother Kangas as a gift; and he still does so till this day, so you can imagine how big my Kanga collection is.
THE KANGA is a rectangle pure cotton cloth with a border all around it, printed in bold designs and bright colours. Kangas are usually bought and worn as a pair – called a “doti”. The Kanga also has a message printed at the back. For women in Tanzania, the messages are the most important part of the kanga. These messages are written in Kiswahili, they are always printed in capital letters. Sometimes they are traditional Kiswahili proverbs and sometimes they are simply just messages. The message can be religious, political, greeting, thank you messages and at times they can be very ambiguous.
Kangas originated on the coast of East Africa in the mid 19th century. Kanga designs have evolved over the years, from simple prints and borders to a huge variety of elaborate patterns of every conceivable motifs and bright colors.
As I mentioned before Kangas are the perfect gift. Husbands give Kangas to their wives; children to their mothers, a woman may split a pair to give half to her best friend. A bride will receive pairs of Kanga from her mother, aunties, as well as family and friends. I remember when I was getting married, by the time it got to the wedding day; I has two whole suitcase full of Kangas. I had relatives from all corners of the country and the world bringing me a pair each.
I love how versatile the Kanga is and that it is worn by both women and men. In the Coastal regions men are known for wearing Kangas around the house, or after a long day of work, they would change into a Kanga and shirt and sit outside in the Kibaraza ‘front porch’ enjoying cup of masala tea; and some men like women will wear the Kanga when they sleep.
Women wear them everywhere to the market, to a wedding and funeral. My mother in law once told me a funny story that she had given her mother in law a pair of Kanga with the message ‘RAHA LEO’, which closely translates to ‘WHAT A JOYFUL DAY’, and her mother in law wore this Kanga to a neighbors funeral. Now I have to mention that it wasn’t really her fault that she didn’t know it would offend her neighbors. You have to understand that she grew up in a culture and house hold where Kangas were never worn or shared amongst the women. There is a tradition to Kangas that is passed on from the grandmother to mother and to daughter; as young girls we are taught how to wrap the Kanga in various ways and the many other uses of a Kanga.
Walking around the streets in Dar es Salaam it is guaranteed that you will see a mother carrying her baby on a Kanga sling on her back. It is said that when babies are wrapped in Kangas from birth, they build a lifelong appreciation of it and in turn the boy will grow up to buy his mother and wife Kangas, while the girl will continue to receive Kangas and wear them to the day she dies. I can somehow relate to this to a certain extent. Going to boarding school away from home, I would pack a pair or two of my mother’s Kangas because they had her scent and I would use on piece as a pillowcase and hold the other as I slept. This gave me so much comfort as I could smell my mother even though she wasn’t there with me.
I’ve always loved that Kangas carried messages at the back. These messages have and are still used as a way of communication. Traditionally and mostly in the Coastal regions, the messages are quite important to women, because the idea is that a woman wears a Kanga with a message she want to express to others. Women in the coastal regions are famously known for using Kangas to send messages to their rivals or neighbors. However I have notice with women of my generation we wear Kanga more as custom made fashion wear . The Kanga has become more of a fashion statement and the messages doesn’t really play a big role anymore as long as it is not offensive. We were always taught to be careful when selecting a Kanga as a gift for someone or for going to the funeral with, as you wouldn’t want to offend anyone.
In the last 10 years Tanzanian designers have appreciated what the Kanga can offer to their designs and they have been incorporating them in their collectionS. Currently the Kanga and another popular cloth ‘the Kitenge’ are much more appreciated and worn by many women both young and old. The Kanga has steadily gained recognition in global community through designers and small local business in the region. Some my favorite Tanzanian Designers who have always incorporated Kanga in their designs are Chichiagram (@chichiagram|www.chichialondon.com) a Tanzanian designer based in London have always incorporated Kanga in their designs, Doreen Mashika (@doreenmashika) and Kemi Kalikawe of Naledi Fashion (@kemikalikawe|www.naledi.co.tz)
Kangas have also been used in various ways around the house; pillow cases, bedsheets, curtains.
Kangas are very much valued and extremely popular throughout Tanzania not only as a piece of clothing but also for its multiple uses and no-one can ever have too many!
Sources: for further read
Kangas: 101 Uses by Jeannette Hanby and David Boycott